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Posted at 11:56 AM ET, 06/21/2013

Is AP better than freshman college courses?

We are in the midst of a national debate over the worth of Advanced Placement courses and tests in high school. The weight of opinion so far is on the side of AP. The program is growing. Thousands of college professors and tens of thousands of high school teachers support it. Most of the available data shows that high school students who do well in AP courses and tests do better in college than students who do not take AP.

But a few very selective colleges have resisted giving much credit for AP. Dartmouth recently announced it will drop credit for AP next year. Some college professors say they don’t think AP courses are as good as the introductory courses on their campuses, even though their admission departments strongly advise applicants to take them, or equivalent college-level courses like International Baccalaureate and the Advanced International Certificate of Education.

I think AP is a plus. Many high school students have told me their AP and IB courses made it easier for them to handle college academic demands. They have persuaded me that the AP approach to teaching and learning — smaller classes meeting more frequently with better-trained instructors — is better than what most colleges give their freshmen.

But perhaps I am biased. So let me introduce an independent expert I don’t know, Alex Thomas of the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. Thomas concluded in a recent essay that “the classes I took in my first semester at UNC were less difficult than my AP courses” at Weddington High School in Matthews, N.C.

He said “my high school teachers used better and more efficient methods of teaching than those I saw in my first year of college. The amount of work they gave me proved to be more challenging and more time consuming than my UNC workload.”

Could that be true? At the end of this column I will appeal for more experts of Thomas’s generation to help me sort this out, since this region has a higher concentration of AP, IB and AICE students than any place on earth. But first let’s hear more from Thomas.

He is a loyal Tar Heel. He complimented his university in his essay which ran on the Web site of the Raleigh-based John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy. He said UNC-Chapel Hill professors and teaching assistants are “cooperative, willing to meet with students during office hours to discuss any problems that they may have with the course material.” He said he likes “working off of a course syllabus, rather than the day-to-day agendas of high school teachers, since I could learn at my own pace and plan ahead in case something came up.” He realizes that he is attending one of the most selective and prestigious universities in the country.

But he is surprised his freshman courses were not as challenging as AP. He cannot accept the view of AP critics that first year college courses are by definition deeper and more difficult. He said his favorite high school course, AP U.S. History, was better than his freshman year course, American History after 1865. He said he “needed no extra effort on my part in order to pass the [UNC] class. The course only required two essays, neither of which was as difficult or as challenging as those I wrote in my high school AP History class.”

He said two other freshman introductory courses, German 101 and Geology 101, were also less challenging than he expected. He suggested colleges “look at high school AP teachers for inspiration on how to teach at a high level.” If you have been a college freshman recently, send your thoughts to me at mathewsj@washpost.com

By  |  11:56 AM ET, 06/21/2013

 
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